There is something about being offered a cup of tea (and a biscuit) in the context of a show that seems to render it especially delicious, refreshing and sociable. Bobby Baker offered spectators a cup of tea back in 1991 as part of Kitchen Show but I’ve only seen this performance on video, so that previous to seeing Mad Gyms and Kitchens in Leeds in June 2012, my experience of this pleasure was limited to Quarantine’s Old People, Children and Animals (2008). The connection is significant since the work of this ‘younger’ company can be seen to share some qualities with Baker’s in terms of a passionate commitment to social and/or political issues that extends to a strong ethic of care, of respect and of generosity in their attitudes to their audiences.
Mad Gyms and Kitchens was commissioned by Unlimited, a project created to celebrate disability arts, culture and sport as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Like most of Baker’s work, the show aims to reach a public beyond those who regularly attend ‘art house’ or gallery spaces, and while in its own way spectacular it is clearly designed to be performed in venues without theatrical sound and lighting rigs.
At the start of the show Baker uses a life size, self portrait to refer to her various experience of illness, which includes her diagnoses with a range of mental health disorders and with osteoporosis. She explains that because of these existing conditions when she started to feel unwell (to the extent of passing out in the supermarket), she was repeatedly told by doctors that this was not surprising as she ‘had a lot on’. It turned out that, in fact, she had breast cancer.
However, the show is not really ‘about’ illness. Instead this story is told to emphasise the fact that ‘we’ know our own bodies best and should trust our own judgment and as part of a theme of ‘well being’ focussing around what eventually helped make Baker ‘so successful’ at ‘being well’.
With the help of two young female assistants (to whom I apologise for having mislaid the programme detailing their names) this is illustrated by means of five flight cases designed by Charlie Whittuck. With high precision and many flourishes these are opened and unfolded in turn to reveal a gym, a kitchen, a bed and a sitting room, all of which are small but beautifully and cunningly formed. In the process Baker offers stories about joining a gym, cooking, resting and relaxing and how these things have contributed to her ‘feeling well’. She demonstrates her exercise machine, makes her favourite breakfast, exclaims in delight over her luxurious bedding and shows us the various objects in her sitting room that entertain her, including Heat magazine, her lap top and a hilarious ‘granny doll’ that wails piteously when thrown.
As she moves on from each flight case Baker changes her shoes from trainers to cooking clogs, to various increasingly comfortable slippers leaving these behind as she goes but carrying forward a souvenir object, such as a sports drinking bottle, or a small plastic penguin. This last prompts Baker to perform a penguin dance to the bouncy strains of Mambo Italiano, in which her two assistants (who genuinely seemed to be having a great time throughout) gleefully join in, with much bumping of bottoms. Typical of key moments in Baker’s shows, this display manages to be simultaneously mildly embarrassing and expressive of joy.
Overall, however Baker makes less a point of ‘displaying’ the objects or ‘marks’ associated with each action in the show than in many previous performances. This is in keeping with the fact that while always warm and personal, her style of performing in this piece gives the appearance of being more intimate than in some of her recent ‘larger scale’ and more theatrical works like Box Story and How to Live. As a result, paradoxically the more she repeatedly emphasises that these activities are what make her feel well, are for her, not for us the more I actually feel drawn in as a spectator. This culminates in the transformation of the final flight case into a travelling tea counter (with a wide choice of attractive mugs and of biscuits) and the handing out of art materials so that while drinking our tea, we can draw what makes us feel well. Baker sticks these up on the wall, commenting on each one.
Baker’s work has always played on the boundary between art and the more mundane and socially least valued aspects of women’s ‘everyday life’, transforming one into the other, or rather perhaps presenting them as a continuum. Since it works outwards from Baker’s own personal experiences, it is possible to offer a reading of Mad Gyms and Kitchens in relation to gender and especially attitudes to women (and perhaps especially middle-aged and older women) within the Health Service. However, the real point of identification with these piece is anybody who has suffered serious health problems and needed to find their precarious way back to ‘well being’.
In short Mad Gyms has a widely inclusive address and the ending also dissolves the distinction between the performance and the audience, as we enter the stage area to get our tea and to draw and post our pictures. Through this latter act Baker not only ‘empowers us’ in terms of encouraging us to trust our own experience of ‘our bodies and ourselves’ but also accords us the status of ‘artist’. There is no applause, no final formal ‘ending’ just a gradual drifting away chatting to each other, feeling cared for, refreshed and full of well being.